Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pulling Out All the Stops

The Twins' amazing run over the first three weeks of June collectively rejuvenated the fan base, making believers out of doubters as the club moved 10 games closer to first place in less than a month's time.

The subsequent six-game losing streak -- punctuated by a humiliating 15-0 loss at Target Field on Monday night -- erased much of the team's progress, while also bringing the "It's Happening" meme to a screeching halt.

In reality, the Twins aren't totally out of it. They're nine games behind in a mediocre division and the season isn't quite halfway over.

Of course, there's a lot of ground to make up. Many things would need to happen for the Twins to surmount their deficit in the AL Central standings and charge into the playoffs.

First and foremost, they need to start playing at full strength. They need injured players to come back and produce quickly, they need Francisco Liriano to get back to pitching the way he was prior to his last outing, and most of all they need Mauer to come alive.

They also need both the Indians and Tigers to play sub-.500 ball in the second half, but I don't think anyone will have too much trouble envisioning that.

All the factors mentioned above are basically out of the front office's and manager's control. If the team's stars can't get healthy and contribute, or if another club in the division wins 90-plus games, the Twins are toast.

If those things break right, though, the Twins will still need to pull out all the stops and maximize what they've got if they're serious about making it happen. Below is a list of four moves I would make to give them their best shot at pulling off an improbable second-half comeback:

1) Replace Tsuyoshi Nishioka at shortstop with Trevor Plouffe.

Nishioka is a 26-year-old foreign player learning a new culture and a new league. His struggles up to this point have been understandable, and it's too soon to give up on him. With that being said, he's looked ridiculously overmatched in the major leagues.

Plouffe was demoted for his sloppy play in the field earlier this year, but Nishioka has committed seven errors in 18 games. And unlike Nishioka, Plouffe has hit. He leads the organization with 14 home runs this year, and he's raking at a blistering .303/.374/.627 clip in Rochester.

Plouffe has earned his shot. Nishioka has not, and frankly could probably benefit from adjusting to the stateside brand of baseball in a less pressure-packed situation.

2) Move Brian Duensing to bullpen, replacing him in rotation with Kevin Slowey or Kyle Gibson.

As expected, Duensing has been a perfectly adequate back-of-rotation starter this year, though not the front-end guy that his superficially impressive core numbers over the past two seasons would have suggested.

I don't think his production in the rotation (5-7, 4.69 ERA, 1.49 WHIP) would be that difficult to replace. In fact, there are two starters readily available who would likely match or improve upon Duensing's results: Slowey and Gibson.

Meanwhile, Duensing would drastically improve the bullpen, giving the Twins a legitimate situational left-hander with Jose Mijares proving totally untrustworthy. It's really the role Duensing is best suited for; he's holding port-siders to a .530 OPS this year while righties have tagged him for a .318 average and .857 OPS.

3) Replace Phil Dumatrait with Chuck James.

While relatively minor, this is a no-brainer. If the goal is to win games, James should be in the bullpen over Dumatrait. It's blindingly obvious that he's a better pitcher.

4) Identify a reliable right-handed reliever.

Ideally, this would be Joe Nathan. If he can't round into shape, the Twins need to go out and find a quality righty to add to the bullpen, because right now they've got nothing outside of Matt Capps. Hopefully they learned their lesson last year about overpaying for relievers in deadline deals, but if the Twins can spin an unwanted part or find a good value in August (like they did with Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes the last two years), they'd be wise to pull the trigger quickly.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Swinging for the Fences

Plenty of Twins hitters have struggled this year, but Ron Gardenhire has been especially hard on Danny Valencia. The manager's frustration seems to be directed more at the young third baseman's approach than his results.

"He's got a lot of movement going on and they are trying to slow that down," Gardenhire said a couple weeks ago, in an interview where he also hinted that a demotion to the minors could be in store.  "When Danny is swinging good he's driving the ball up the middle and the other way, staying on pitches. Right now, it looks like he's trying to hit every ball into the seats."

In 14 games since that quote was published, Valencia has only 10 hits -- six of them for extra bases, including three homers and a deep triple. Here's his spray chart during that span (excluding last night's game):

Zero hits to the opposite field. It seems clear that, whether intentional or not, Valencia isn't heeding his manager's advice. He's swinging hard and trying to crush the ball, and while that has resulted in some welcome power productivity, he's also hitting only .212 in those 14 games, with two walks and 11 strikeouts.

The Twins are so thin from injuries that Valencia need not worry about a trip to the minors for now. But if he doesn't start picking it up in the second half, he won't find himself guaranteed a starting job next year, regardless of the homer and RBI totals.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The First Step

It's happening. The Twins are finally easing up on their stringent "Catcher Only" rule with Joe Mauer, a reversal which -- while basically necessitated by circumstances -- strikes me as significant.

Although he's returned to the lineup after missing two months due to leg weakness, Mauer still seems to be dragging along. He continues to hit the ball into the ground about 70 percent of the time, he's bickering with pitchers, and his struggles in the No. 3 spot epitomize the lineup's ineptitude.

Moreover, despite the club's insistence that they view Mauer as their starting catcher, he's increasingly becoming a part-time player in that role. Since returning from the disabled list, he's started only six of the team's nine games behind the plate, and yesterday wasn't able to crack the lineup due to the lack of a DH in an NL park.

If his usage pattern thus far is any indication, Mauer may not be capable of catching more than two out of every three games, and that presents a problem if the Twins want to keep him in the lineup alongside Jim Thome on a regular basis.

The obvious solution, of course, is to hand Mauer a first baseman's mitt and start giving him sporadic starts there while Justin Morneau recovers from neck surgery. Realizing this, the Twins have begun working Mauer out at first, which may be leading toward his first appearance at a position other than catcher as a major-leaguer. Ron Gardenhire told reporters that Mauer would have been in the lineup yesterday if he could play first.

I have gone on record as saying I think a position switch for Mauer is an inevitability at this point, and that the Twins would be wise to start facilitating that transition as soon as possible. Could this be the first step?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Is It Happening?

As a guy who spent four years studying journalism in college, I appreciate good reporting. I think we Twins fans are pretty lucky to have a wide range of talented reporters covering our favorite team. I may have my quibbles with the lack of scrutiny applied at times, but in general I do believe that the local media do a great job of cultivating this region's interest in major-league baseball, for which the Twins should be grateful.

Of all the folks covering this team, there might not be anyone who does it better than Phil Mackey. Despite being a full-time radio host for ESPN-1500 who's not yet 30 years old, Mackey dominates the Twins beat, feeding hungry fans a wealth of inside information and flavoring his analysis with equal parts stat-savvy and digestibility.

He's gained a lot of credibility within the fan base - a fan base that has been starved for positives after an absolutely miserable first third of the season. So when Mackey boldly predicted a division title 10 days ago with two words, "It's happening," a meme was born.

Fans readily clung to the hopeful message. As the team kept winning - six straight after his initial tweet - P-Mac cultivated his catchphrase, dropping the #ItsHappening hash tag after nearly every break that went the Twins' way and maintaining his shtick with Patrick Reusse on their mid-day talk show.

Now, I'm hearing from fans everywhere that "It's Happening." The radio station has created a website dedicated to the phrase, where they've already got t-shirts printed up for sale. Fellow media types and even players on the team have latched onto the newly hatched slogan.

I suspect Mackey, a whiz with numbers, is fully cognizant that after a catastrophic first two months the Twins' odds of making the playoffs remain jarringly slim; that they'd have to overcome significant flaws and win at a higher rate than any club in baseball has up to this point in order to take the division (barring complete meltdowns from every other AL Central contender).

But he saw an opportunity to create a storyline that fans could embrace, and they have done just that. Mackey's lifelong affinity for pro wrestling sometimes shows through; I suspect that's why he makes for such a compelling radio host.

Even if it's often put forth with a twinge of sarcasm by P-Mac and others, the catchphrase - or, more accurately, the attitude behind it - is taking over Twins Territory, despite losses the past two days. We've seen this club erase some pretty major deficits over the years, and they gradually seem to be moving back toward full health. After moving eight games closer to first place in just a few weeks, anything seems possible. People are ready to believe.

Myself? I certainly want to believe. I've enjoyed the heck out of this month's run, but I'm also not blinded by it. The rotation won't keep chugging along like this forever, and while Michael Cuddyer is on a ridiculous tear there are a lot of problems with this offense.

Having said that, there's no denying that the Twins have put themselves back in the picture and retaken control of their fate. They trail three teams in the division, but they've got a lot of games left against those teams. If they're up to the challenge, the path is laid out for one of the most dramatic comebacks in baseball history. Several things need to happen in order for that challenge to be met, and next week I'll write about some of those things.

All in all, I'm digging the optimism and hope that have reinvigorated the fan base. Twins baseball is fun again. Nevertheless, I could do without the hackneyed "It's Happening" slogan for a while -- at least until Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau shows a pulse.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Here We Go Again...

When Michael Cuddyer whipped out his first baseman's mitt after Justin Morneau took a seemingly minor blow to the head last July, he hardly could have guessed he'd be wearing it every day for the rest of the season.

Will it be a similar story this year for Ben Revere?

The 23-year-old prospect, on the roster for a second stint this year due to a rash of injuries, took center field on June 7 with Span complaining of concussion symptoms stemming from an innocuous-looking collision at home plate a few days earlier.

With the exception of one game, in which he played left while Jason Repko manned center, Revere has been Minnesota's center fielder ever since.

In a brief radio interview with KFAN's Paul Allen yesterday, Span -- who had just finished a light workout at Target Field -- sounded despondent. Asked to guess when he might return to the lineup, he stumbled for words before settling on the All-Star break, an answer he sounded none too confident in.

The center fielder can hardly be blamed for his demeanor given the stark similarities between his predicament and the one that faced his teammate a year ago.

Much like Span, Morneau was amidst an outstanding campaign before taking a knock to the head while running the bases hard. Neither injury was initially deemed serious -- Span even played and batted third against the Indians three days after running into Royals catcher Brayan Pena -- but Morneau ended up missing the rest of his season and Span has missed two weeks with no return in sight.

To listen to Span describing his symptoms, you'd almost think he was reading Morneau quotes from last year's newspapers. In his downtime, he experiences no issues, but when he steps up his activity and tries to get on the field and work out, on come the headaches and dizziness.

Players like Cuddyer and Revere deserve a lot of credit for stepping up and helping the team win in spite of these significant losses, but Morneau and Span are both extremely likable players and key cogs in the lineup. It's hard -- for the team, for the fans, and especially for those two competitive spirits.

I'm very hopeful that Span can shake these issues and hit his targeted return date, because he's fun to watch and some advanced statistics had him pegged as one of the league's most valuable players over the first two months of the season.

However, as I assess his situation, I can't help but think of Morneau, who is approaching the one-year anniversary of his concussion and to this point still has not been able to bounce back.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Three-Bagger: Winning, Mauer's Grounders & No Power

* The Twins are smoking hot. As horribly as everything went in April and May, June has been a charmed month. The starting pitching has been absolutely phenomenal (the team has allowed zero or one run in five of its past seven), and the offense -- even with disappointing initial returns from Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Joe Mauer -- has been productive, thanks largely to heightened contributions from role players.

The Twins have won seven straight and 14 out of their last 16, yet they still are tied with Kansas City for the fewest wins in the American League. That should tell you something about how brutal those first two months were.

As I said a week ago, a steep uphill climb remains, and the schedule will grow tougher in the coming weeks. But the Twins have at least put themselves in a position where a run at contention seems feasible, and for that fans must be very grateful.

* Mauer returned to the Twins this weekend, and while it was nice to see him play all three games and push Butera/Rivera out of the lineup twice, I'm not going to feel fully confident in him until he stops hitting the ball on the ground constantly.

The underlying issue in Mauer's dreadful start to the season (.235/.289/.265 with one extra-base hit in 38 plate appearances) was a sky-high GB rate. He grounded out multiple times in all three games over the weekend, and his only hit was a bouncer up the middle in his first at-bat on Friday.

Presently, 70 percent of balls put in play by the catcher this year have been grounders. Derek Jeter's 65 percent rate leads all qualifying players.

* The Twins haven't hit for much power this year and that runs through the entire organization. We're approaching the season's halfway point and Trevor Plouffe leads the system in home runs, with 11. Yes, Trevor Plouffe.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Return of Mauer

At long last, Joe Mauer is set to make his return to the Twins' lineup tonight. Sidelined since April 12, the franchise centerpiece is expected to bat third and start at catcher against the Padres. 

While I have no doubt that Mauer will receive a very positive reception from the crowd at Target Field, I wouldn't be surprised to hear a few boo birds mixed in with the predominant cheers. There are folks out there, even among the media and perhaps within the organization, who are legitimately angry with Mauer over this whole ordeal.

Such a reaction strikes me as irrational, yet understandable.

Confusion breeds anger, and there's been no shortage of confusion surrounding the ailment that has cost Joe Mauer nearly half of his 2011 season. In a press conference held yesterday to address the catcher's lengthy absence, Bill Smith gave the following convoluted, nonsensical description:
In its simplest form, bilateral leg weakness means he had weakness in both legs. The majority of that was due to the knee surgery he had in December, and if you take the extremes much further, to bilateral leg weakness, there’s a lot of very challenging results that can happen.
Ah, well then.

As with almost everything we've heard from Twins officials with regards to Mauer's injury, this quote doesn't actually tell us a thing. We get that Mauer had weak legs. We get that it was related to his offseason knee surgery. What we don't get is why a 28-year-old premier athlete needed seven months to get his legs back under him after a procedure that was deemed minor.

Now we wait apprehensively to see how his legs react to the rigors of regular catching after a nebulous rehab, and wonder whether he'll be able to recapture the explosiveness that followed his last extended layoff (he posted a 1.338 OPS with 11 homers in May of 2009 after missing all of March and April).

A similar explosion right off the bat seems unlikely. As Buster Olney noted earlier this week, Ron Gardenhire has "cautioned against immediate expectations."

Fortunately, the team's recent winning run takes a world of pressure of Mauer's shoulders. If the Twins were still slumping, fans would be yearning for him to gallop in like a white knight and singlehandedly reverse the club's fortunes.

With the starting pitching starting to click, the bullpen avoiding meltdowns (at least for the time being) and some key role players finally beginning to do their parts, all Mauer needs to do is come in and outhit the likes of Drew Butera and Rene Rivera, which he should be able to do handily even if he exhibits some initial rust and fatigue.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Respawning the Piranhas

The White Sox are back in town.

Over the past handful of years, that's been music to the ears of baseball fans in Minnesota. Since 2008, the Twins are 21-6 at home against the Sox. Ozzie Guillen often lamented his team's hex at the Metrodome (where they hadn't posted a winning record since 2005), and Target Field has - up to this point - not proven much friendlier.

Baseball is a random game where few things can be relied upon, but success for the Twins when facing the South Siders on their own turf has been one of them.

Will that continue to be the case this year? Rain has delayed the latest chapter of this classic rivalry, which figures to get underway tonight. It seems an appropriate time to gauge each club.

At present, the Twins and White Sox both find themselves in unfamiliar and undesirable territory: the bottom.

Chicago has gradually recovered from its miserable 14-23 start, winning 19 of 31 to move within two games of .500.

The Twins, on the other hand, saw their early drought carry on longer and have experienced a more rapid correction, with nine wins in their past 11 games. They remain 13 games under .500, but will look to continue their march toward respectability this week against Chicago.

Prior to the season, most people expected the Tigers, White Sox and Twins to battle for the AL Central crown. With the latter two climbing steadily while the Indians free-fall (they've dropped 11 of their last 15), we may be seeing the cream rise to the top.

But Detroit isn't going away, so these are critical games for the teams set to compete at Target Field tonight and tomorrow. With Alexi Casilla and Ben Revere setting the tone for the offense (and Tsuyoshi Nishioka likely to be activated for tonight's game), the Twins will employ a speed-based, small-ball approach that prompted Ozzie Guillen to token the "piranhas" nickname several years ago.

If the Twins can effectively implement this game plan and win, as they have consistently over the past couple weeks, we can expect plenty of effuse praise for the scrappy bunch from Ron Gardenhire. And Guillen, of course.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Too Many Strikes

In baseball, as in life, things aren't always black-and-white.

For example, throwing strikes and limiting walks is generally a good thing for a pitcher. Yet, there is such a thing as throwing too many strikes, and I think we're seeing it from Matt Capps.

The Twins' closer has faced 111 batters this season and walked only two of them. His minuscule walk rate of 0.6 BB/9IP ranks as the lowest in the majors, edging Kyle Farnsworth, who's at 0.8 (what?). Capps has thrown 70 percent of his pitches for strikes.

Pounding the zone has helped the right-hander limit base runners, as evidenced by a stellar 0.93 WHIP. On the flip side, though, he's not fooling anybody. Hitters know what to expect and come to the plate ready to swing and make contact. Capps' strikeout rate has sunk to a career-low 5.5 K/9IP, and it's very tough for a closer to succeed with so few whiffs.

Capps has a good fastball, but he's throwing it 84 percent of the time and almost always over the plate. He's become too predictable, which has enabled hitters to jump on him for five home runs (one short of his total in 73 innings last year).

From my perspective, he needs to start working out of the zone a bit more often to keep hitters honest, making the opposite adjustment of Francisco Liriano. If he can cut down on the hard-hit balls and induce a few more strikeouts, Capps actually figures to be very successful in the second half.


Congratulations to the winners of yesterday's Minnesota Twins Vintage World Series DVD contest. The three names drawn were: Casey Bresnahan, Matthew Beyer and Mark Dasovic.

Thanks to everyone who submitted their name, especially those of you who included a nice personal note. I'll try and run another giveaway soon.

If you didn't win but are still interested in the DVD, you can check it out here.


Joe Mauer is hitting the Batting Cages with eyes on returning later this week. Can he help fuel the Twins' turnaround?

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Long Road

"Stuff" is one of my favorite baseball terms. On the surface it seems so rudimentary, yet it's used by scribes, players, coaches, scouts and fans alike. There really is no synonym. While the word in its general usage is as ambiguous as they come, its usage in baseball is acutely specific. You know what it is when you see it. Stuff is what makes the great pitchers great.

Francisco Liriano is one of those hurlers who has always been gifted with incredible stuff. When he first unleashed it on the major leagues back in 2006, hitters were blown away. Despite being just 22, Liriano struck out 144 batters while allowing only 89 hits in 121 innings. It was one of the most dominating rookie performances in memory.

The electricity of Liriano's arm has never been in question, only his ability to keep it running and control its current.

He short-circuited late in that sensational 2006 campaign, with a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery. We all know how many tribulations have been encountered on the long road back, but through it all Liriano's stuff endured; he continued to throw the ball past hitters even at times when his body ached and his control disappeared (most notably in a 2009 campaign where he went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA but still managed 122 whiffs in 136 innings).

Last season, things finally came together for Liriano, for the first time since his injury. He displayed masterful command of the strike zone, averaging only 2.7 walks per nine innings, and his stuff was just about as good as ever. At age 27, he seemed prepared to resume the path he'd embarked upon when he first rose to the majors back in 2006, which was why I strongly advocated for a contract extension during the offseason.

Of course, I didn't anticipate that Liriano would forget how to throw strikes over the offseason. From the moment he showed up to camp this year, he was a mess, racking up huge pitch counts while struggling to find the zone with even half his offerings. Over his first seven starts this year (including the no-hitter), Liriano walked 27 batters in 35 2/3 innings while throwing just 55 percent of his pitches for strikes.

Ever since the no-hitter, though, Liriano has been pitching with increased confidence, and yesterday at Target Field he appeared to turn a corner. Finally, he looked every bit as dominant as he did when at his best last year, or even in 2006. Facing off against a dangerous Texas lineup, the southpaw attacked the zone with authority, making almost every hitter he faced look hopelessly overmatched.

There was no luck involved with Liriano's no-hit bid, which was broken up by an Adrian Beltre single in the eighth. All afternoon, the Rangers flailed hopelessly at Liriano's darting fastballs and devastating sliders. Through the first seven innings, seemingly every Texas at-bat ended with a strikeout or a weakly tapped grounder.

In two starts since returning from the disabled list, the left-hander has now allowed two runs (one earned), five hits and three walks in 13 innings while striking out 16. It took a while, but finally he seems to be getting back on track.

The same can be said for the Twins, who have now won nine of their last 11, trimming their deficit in the AL Central to single digits for the first time since early May.

With a bevy of key players set to come off the disabled list this week, interleague play (which they've traditionally dominated) approaching, and plenty of home games on the docket, the Twins have to be feeling a whole lot better about their chances than they they did just a couple short weeks ago.

With that said, they've still got a long way to go. In spite of their impressive hot streak, they still have the fewest wins of any AL team, and must pass four clubs to get to the top of the division. Even with the rotation showing significant improvement and the lineup incrementally returning to full strength, that will be a tall task for a team with ingrained flaws.

One thing is for sure, though: their odds will be much, much better if Liriano can keep throwing the ball like he did at Target Field yesterday. Suddenly, this team has an ace again.

Good stuff.


A&E Home Entertainment has kindly provided three copies of The Minnesota Twins Vintage World Series Films DVD to give out to readers of the blog. If you're interested, drop me a line at [email protected] by 5 pm on Monday with your name in the subject line and I'll include you in a drawing. Great gift for pops with Father's Day approaching.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

"Just Leave Delmon Alone"

All season long, Delmon Young has been costing the Twins runs with his bat and with his glove. As we enter the middle of June, the outfielder is batting .219/.250/.271 and has fewer extra-base hits than Drew Butera. His defense in left field has been reprehensible, as another muffed play that reeked of poor effort led to the decisive run in Tuesday night's loss.

Yet, for some reason, Ron Gardenhire has been hugely reluctant to mess with Young's routine in any way. The manager's decision to use noodle-armed Ben Revere in right field while sticking with Young in left prior to Denard Span's injury flew in the face of sheer logic, but Gardy provided the following rationalization:
"Not to mess with Delmon more than anything else,'' Gardenhire said of his reason for leaving Young in left. "He's got his hands full in left, so we'll keep him working out there and not trying to mess with his mind any more. We're trying to get him hitting. I think if you start switching him in the outfield, he's got something else he's got to worry about. So just leave Delmon alone."
OK, so what about using Young at designated hitter, so he can focus completely on hitting and stop sabotaging the team's pitchers?

"Delmon's not really too excited about DH-ing," Gardenhire said. "He's been working really hard in the outfield, trying to get better. He feels a lot more comfortable playing, and I respect that."
Despite the fact that he's literally been one of the worst players in all of baseball this year, Young continues to not only start every day, but hit fifth in the lineup and dictate where he plays in the field.

If Young had a long track record of success, or was showing gradual improvement, or even if he was considered a staple in the clubhouse, I might understand the manager's tact. None of these things are true. Why is he being coddled while Trevor Plouffe is being demoted after making bad throws and Danny Valencia is being benched for multiple games when his bat goes cold?

This doesn't qualify as a season-opening slump anymore. We're coming up on the halfway point in the season and Young's OPS continues to hover around .500, which is staggeringly bad for a plodding corner outfielder.

Gardenhire needs to start worrying less about disrupting the rhythm of a player who is currently amidst the worst slump of his entire career, and more about the overall well-being of this Twins team, which is trying desperately to scrape its way back into contention.

If Young has so much on his mind, perhaps some time off from playing (or, as I've suggested, a change of scenery) would be the best course of action. Leaving Delmon alone has done a lot more harm than good.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Revere's Audition

Before spring training got underway, I wrote about Ben Revere and the possibility that he could see extended time at the big-league level early on this season. At the time, Justin Morneau's status was very much in doubt, and I suggested that if the team had to play without their first baseman, Revere could be brought up to help take the load off outfielders Jason Kubel, Denard Span, Delmon Young and Jason Repko with Michael Cuddyer shifting to first.

As it turns out, Morneau has been able to avoid the disabled list, but Kubel, Young and Repko have not, so Revere presently finds himself in his second stint with the Twins this year. If Span's current bout with headaches and dizziness forces him to the DL, the door could open wider than ever for Revere, who would figure to get prolonged looks in center field and the leadoff spot.

Revere's flaws are readily apparent, and they're not likely to go away. At 5'9" and 170 pounds, he can't generate any power with his bat or with his arm.

In the outfield, he's got one of the weakest arms you will ever witness in the majors. Meanwhile, he hit only five home runs in 1,654 minor-league plate appearances and has collected one extra base hit in 90 trips to the dish as a big-leaguer.

But, both in the field and at the plate, Revere's blazing speed helps offset his weaknesses. His range in the outfield is good enough that he's an asset defensively in spite of the popgun. On offense, while he may rarely get himself past first base with his bat, he makes up for it by wreaking havoc once he's aboard. He swiped 154 bags in 380 minor-league games and ranks third on the Twins with three steals this year despite having played in only 21 games.

The key for Revere -- one that will make-or-break him as a big-league starter -- is his ability to get on base. He's never drawn a ton of walks so his OBP will likely always be reliant on his batting average. Fortunately, he has never had any trouble hitting for average.

Despite never having the luxury of repeating a level, the 23-year-old has hit .300 or better at each stop in the minors. With his tremendous quickness out of the box, his high contact rate and his ability to spray line drives, there's little reason to believe he can't carry this trait over to the big leagues once he acclimates (he is, in fact, currently on a 10-game hitting streak).

Of course, even if he can sustain a .300 average in the majors, Revere is going to have to learn how to draw at least a moderate number of walks in order to become a true offensive weapon.

In both Single-A and Double-A, he was able to OBP in the .370 range, which made him a legitimate asset at the top of the lineup. Yet, with his walk rate above those levels (only eight free passes in 231 plate appearances between Triple-A and the majors), he'd need a batting average of .330 or .340 to get on base at that clip.

I think the best we can realistically hope for in the long run is that Revere can become a guy who catches everything in the outfield (either in LF or CF), and routinely hits .300 with an OBP in the .350 range and a healthy number of steals. While this wouldn't make him a star, he'd be a very serviceable starter and, while earning the league minimum for the next few years, he'd give the Twins more flexibility elsewhere.

Here's hoping that Revere can show signs of becoming that player during this audition period.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Three-Bagger: Draft, Lineups & Gatherings

* The first round of Major League Baseball's amateur entry draft took place yesterday, and the Twins were the 30th team to pick, by virtue of their tremendous 2010 campaign. Rather than selecting a college pitcher or high school position player, as they have with their first pick in each of the past 14 drafts, the Twins nabbed University of Carolina shortstop Levi Michael.

I haven't spent as much time studying the draft crop this year as I usually do, so I was only familiar with a handful of prospects and Michael was not one of them. From what I gather, he's a switch-hitting junior who's improved his stock over the course of his collegiate career.

It's nice to see the Twins break from their routine and bring in a polished player at a position of severe organization weakness. I've seen Michael's upside compared to Brian Roberts. To be honest, though, based on what I've read, it's pretty difficult to get enthused about the kid.

From the scouting report:
Every Draft class has a crop of college middle infielders that is interesting, if not overwhelmingly exciting. Michael has improved over the past couple of years, moving himself to close to the top of this year's class of college hitters who play up the middle.

He can hit from both sides of the plate and, though he is more of a gap-to-gap guy, has gotten stronger and shown a little more pop this season.

When he's healthy, he's got above-average speed and will steal a base. An ankle injury has slowed him somewhat this season on both sides of the ball. Even before that, some scouts felt his range was too limited to be an everyday shortstop as a professional. His average arm is playable there but might be a bit short to profile there all the time. As a result, most see him as a second baseman -- his hands work just fine -- or as a utility type who can fill in at shortstop and not be a detriment.

It may not sound like the most exciting combination of tools, but it should be enough to be gone in the first 60 picks.
"Average arm"? "Hands work just fine"? "Utility type"? These are not descriptors one likes to read for a first-round pick. Fortunately, Baseball America paints a slightly better picture:
Michael was a solid high school prospect in Lexington, N.C., but he graduated early in order to join the Tar Heels for the 2009 season. He has played a new position each season, moving from second base as a freshman to third base as a sophomore, before settling in at shortstop this year. He's been a reliable defender at all three spots, and scouts are warming up to the idea that he could stay at shortstop at the pro level. He missed a couple of games with an ankle injury and was still getting back to 100 percent, but he still showed ability in all facets of the game and was hitting .311/.461/.464 with 14 stolen bases in 15 attempts in 196 at-bats. He is a patient hitter with a good eye for the strike zone from both sides of the plate, with a 43-27 walk-strikeout ratio. He hits to all fields and could hit at the top of the batting order, though he shows pop and is naturally stronger from the right side. He's an above-average runner, though he hadn't quite returned to that level since the injury. Scouts don't view the ankle as a long-term concern. Defensively, he has good actions and enough arm strength for shortstop. The only concern is his range, but he'll get every chance to prove himself before potentially sliding to second base.
I want to believe the Twins got their guy. Then I read quotes like this one from scouting director Deron Johnson: "Picking No. 30, it's just whomever is left."


The Twins made two more selections yesterday, utilizing the sandwich picks they received as compensation for the free agent departures of Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain. Those were used on Travis Harrison, a high school third baseman from California with considerable power potential (my favorite pick of the day), and Hudson Boyd, a right-handed high school pitcher from Ft. Myers.

The first-round results from this organization's past few drafts have been iffy (at least until Aaron Hicks and Alex Wimmers can get things turned around), but they've still made enough solid picks over the years that I'm willing to trust their judgment. They really need some of these picks to pan out.

* Ron Gardenhire's lineup last night was an interesting one, which featured Denard Span somewhere other than the leadoff spot for the first time since he was a rookie in 2008. Taking over in the one-spot was Ben Revere, who has seen his bat heat up in early June.

I applaud Gardy for the creativity, even if it didn't pay dividends. Revere and Span combined to go 1-for-8, but the bottom part of the order keyed a 6-4 victory, the club's fifth straight.

Noticeably absent from last night's lineup card was Danny Valencia, who had started each of the team's first 58 games. The sophomore hasn't hit all that well, but he's at least been in the lineup every day and deserves credit for that.

* I had a lot of fun at Friday night's TwinsCentric Viewing Party at Smalley's 87 Club downtown. Turnout was great, especially considering how late the event actually came together and how crummy the Twins have been. Most importantly, we helped Lindsay Guentzel raise a bunch of money for the Leukemia and Lymphona Society; big ups to Lindsay for her outstanding work for this deserving cause.

I also picked up one of the latest offerings from the apparel gurus over at DiamondCentric (progenitors of the famed "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt, among countless others). Titled "Game Six," the design commemorates one of the greatest moments in franchise history, with a silhouette of Kirby Puckett pumping his fist next to the numbers 1991. It's printed on a high-quality triblend material that you can wear out as well as to games. In fact, this shirt has instantly become the nicest article of clothing I own, and I plan to be married in it one day. (OK, I'm kidding, but it's seriously a damn comfy shirt.)

At $20, Game Six is a must-own for Puckett fans all over. Make sure to check out the rest of DiamondCentric's unique Twins apparel as well.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Give Plouffe a Chance

One opportunity that a team gains in a lost season is being able to take an extended look at young players without fear of meaningful damage from rookie hiccups. Yet, despite the total lack of shortstop depth within their system, the Twins seem to have no interest in giving Trevor Plouffe a legitimate shot.

Plouffe had a streak of six straight games started at shortstop in mid-May end with a remarkably poor performance against the Mariners. In the contest, a 10-inning loss at Target Field, the young infielder went 0-for-5 and made several ugly plays in the field, heavily contributing to his team's demise.

Ron Gardenhire berated Plouffe after the game and then buried him on the bench. The shortstop started only two of the next nine games (looking rattled when on the field) and last night he was optioned to Triple-A so the Twins could call up Brian Dinkelman, whose upside is about as exciting as his name.

To be clear, I'm no huge Plouffe fan. That's a big part of the reason I was baffled by the Twins leaving him as their only legitimate backup behind Alexi Casilla entering the season. He's nothing special as a hitter and obviously he's got some accuracy issues with his arm.

But he's also a former first-round pick, and a guy who was really tearing it up in Triple-A before being called up. While he batted only .210 in his 71 plate appearances with the Twins, he did hit three homers, and his .383 slugging percentage was the best of any player on the active roster. Yes, he looked shaky at times, but he's a 24-year-old playing in the bigs and desperate to impress a coaching staff he let down in spring training. Danny Valencia was struggling to adjust to Triple-A when he was the same age.

Plouffe might not be a major-league shortstop, but he probably resembles one more closely than anybody else the Twins can trot out there at this point. He's already played close to three seasons in Rochester. It's time to see what he's got.

I simply don't see the harm in saying, "Trevor is our starting shortstop and we're going to let him battle through the yips," as opposed to banishing him and giving playing time to guys like Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert, who have had far more opportunity to prove they are not MLB shortstops.